Twice upon a time. . .
One of Disney’s most famous fairy tale movies is The Little Mermaid, released in 1989. It follows the inspirational journey of Princess Ariel as she follows her dreams and finds true love.
Depending on how familiar you are with fairy tales (or the Disney treatment of them), you might be surprised to find just how different the original story by Hans Christian Andersen is.
Andersen wrote The Little Mermaid as part of a collection of fairy tales, published in April 1837. Unlike its contemporary counterpart, the original story is not about good vs. evil. It’s about choices made and the consequences of them. It’s about sacrificial love and striving to be and do your best.
To make things easier, let’s look at the stories side by side.
The Little Mermaid
Anderson: The Little Mermaid, who remains nameless throughout the story, lives with her father, the sea-king, her five older sisters, and her grandmother in an undersea kingdom.
Disney: The little mermaid, Ariel, is the youngest of sevens daughters. Her father, King Triton, is ruler of the seas. He and his daughters live in Atlantica, a submerged ocean realm.
Exploring the Surface
Anderson: According to tradition, when a mermaid reaches 15, she can swim to the surface to observe the human world. She can return once every year. The Little Mermaid anxiously awaits her chance and listens to her sisters’ stories about humans and the surface.
Disney: Sixteen-year-old Ariel has developed a habit of sneaking away from home to the surface. She collects human ‘stuff’, which fascinates her. Despite being told to stay away from the dangerous humans, Ariel continues to get closer and closer to them.
The Handsome Prince
Anderson: During the Little Mermaid’s first swim to the surface, she sees and falls in love with a handsome prince. A storm hits, and the Little Mermaid saves the prince from drowning. She leaves him on a beach, where a girl from a temple finds him unconscious. The prince never knows about the Little Mermaid.
Disney: Ariel approaches a ship at sea, wanting to see a human up close. She falls in love with one of the men, Prince Eric, and she saves him from drowning, which is against her father’s laws. When he finds out, he furiously destroys her collection of human artifacts and assigns a crab, Sebastian, to follow her every move. Prince Eric, meanwhile, is fascinated by what little he remembers about his rescuer (mostly her voice) and is determined to find and marry the girl.
The Sea Witch
Anderson: The Little Mermaid asks her grandmother how she can be with the human she loves, but her grandmother explains that the mermaid can’t because mermaids live underwater and live longer than humans. When a mermaid dies, she turns into sea foam, unlike humans, who have souls that live on. The Little Mermaid is determined, however, and visits the Sea Witch to buy a potion to give her legs. If she can earn the prince’s love and marries him, she will receive a soul. However, her legs will constantly be in pain, as if she were walking on knives. The cost of the potion is her tongue, for her voice was beautiful. The Sea Witch also warns her that if the prince marries someone else, the Little Mermaid will die of a broken heart the next morning and disintegrate into sea foam. The Little Mermaid takes the potion.
Disney: Ursula, a sea witch, is seen plotting against King Triton and his family. After a terrible fight between Ariel and her father, Ursula is able to lure Ariel away with the promise of a reunion with the man she loves. She makes a deal with Ariel; she can turn her into a human for three days in exchange for Ariel’s voice. If she can get the prince to love her, and prove it with a kiss, then she can remain human. Otherwise, Ariel’s soul will belong to Ursula.
The Human World
Anderson: The Little Mermaid arrives in the human world and catches the eye of the prince with her gracefulness. He often asks her to dance for him, which she gladly does, even though it causes her pain. The two become close friends, despite her lack of voice.
Disney: Prince Eric finds Ariel washed up on the beach and thinks she is familiar. He takes her to his castle to take care of her, saddened to find she has no voice, as it means she can’t be the girl who rescued him. He spends the next two days with Ariel, falling in love with her but reluctant to admit it as he still hopes to find his rescuer.
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Anderson: The prince’s father tells him that he has arranged a marriage between the prince and a princess of a neighboring kingdom. The prince is upset by the news and confides in the Little Mermaid, telling her that he loves the girl who found him on the beach and will marry no one else. When the princess arrives, the prince is surprised to find it is the girl from the temple. He agrees to marry her, which breaks the Little Mermaid’s heart.
Disney: A girl arrives, singing with Ariel’s voice. She enchants Eric, who agrees to marry her immediately. Ariel has to stop the wedding before sunset, when she will turn back into a mermaid. She finds out the girl is Ursula in disguise, who doesn’t want Ariel to succeed in her quest for love. She manages to stall and takes Ariel prisoner.
Anderson: The Little Mermaid’s heart is broken the night the prince and princess marry. Her sisters find her before the sun rises and tell her that they have gone to the Sea Witch and traded their long hair for a way to keep their youngest sister alive. They give her a knife and tell the Little Mermaid that if she kills the prince and lets his blood drip on her legs, she will be a mermaid again and live her life out normally. She takes the knife, but is unable to kill the prince because she loves him too much. Instead of becoming sea foam, however, the Little Mermaid becomes an air spirit when the sun rises. By doing good deeds, she will be able to earn a soul.
Disney: King Triton arrives and makes a deal with Ursula; in return for Ariel’s freedom, he will take her place as a prisoner. Ursula agrees and begins to cause chaos with the immense power she takes from him. Eric, realizing that Ariel is the girl who rescued him and that he loves her, arrives to save her. Together, they defeat Ursula. King Triton sees how much Ariel and Eric love each other and gives her human legs again, allowing them to wed.
As was the case with other fairy tales of it’s time, The Little Mermaid was used as a teaching tool for children. Therefore: original is heavier on morals than the movie.
That’s not to say that the movie lacks merit. Many critics and writers, including P.L. Travers (the creator of Mary Poppins) thought the original story’s ending was too contrived.
In the end, whichever version you prefer, there is great value to be found in the tale.
Which version do you prefer: the original or modern tale?
K A T E G . J A M E S O N has a deep fascination for fairy tales. When not researching legends of magic and the Fair Folk, she can be found editing Clubhouse and Clubhouse Jr. children’s magazines, acting in plays, or writing tales of her own creation.